A poem . . . begins as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a lovesickness…. It finds the thought and the thought finds the words. —Robert Frost
All bad poetry springs from genuine feeling. To be natural is to be obvious, and to be obvious is to be inartistic. —Oscar Wilde
Some years ago when I first started to teach a fiction class called “Essential Beginnings” at UCLA Extension, I had to consider what I should offer new writers. In the context of a three-hour class, what things might I guide people toward that they may not otherwise discover immediately on their own? Poetry. I use it now, too, in my fiction class at Santa Monica College.
Poetry is a great thing for writers to know, even if they don’t plan on being poets. In fact, poetry is a great thing for everyone to understand. Poetry can pack so much into so little. It lets you live in the world with a new pair of glasses with a clear prescription.
The following isn’t short—around 2500 words. I can’t pack poetry into a shorter space. Thus, as with a fun puppy, enjoy a little at a time. When you start to understand how this works, you can use poetic devices in your fiction and nonfiction.
Good writing is often layered. The first layer is the immediate connotation—what the words say. Then there may be subtext—what the words also suggest. Subtext can come through many methods—by what’s not said, for instance, and through the rhythm and sounds of what is written, as another example.
When I think of layering, I think of Shakespeare’s plays. He was able, through language both simple and complex, to play not only to the groundlings—the poor people standing in the front—but also to the educated royalty in the boxes, and to future generations.
Let me draw your attention to the quotes at the top of this piece. I offer them because Frost had it right in saying that poetry—and, to my mind, prose writing—often starts with a definite physical feeling, and you expand those sensations into thought and words. Wilde’s quote, however, is to remind you that genuine feelings don’t necessarily lead to great writing. They can lead to cliché. The trick is to get beyond the obvious. One way to do that is play with the language. In order to play, here are a few devices:
What you write has sound. People hear your words in their heads, and so the sounds you create can draw people’s attention. In addition, at the right moments, you can be much like a music composer, working with sound to create feeling. The skillful writer has sounds in mind.
If you’ve ever read The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, you might remember the last two paragraphs, partly for their sound:
Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther…. And one fine morning--
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
There’s a lot going on there. Gatsby saw more than just a green light on a pole at the end of a dock. It’s a symbol, no? It suggests how we all look at the future. He believed in what the light represented—hope.
Look, too, at what is not said. The third sentence is a fragment: “And one fine morning—” What happened one fine morning? Did we make pancakes? No. Again, we all are like Gatsby. If our spouse doesn’t understand us, or our boss doesn’t see our talents, well, one fine morning we’ll show them! At our best moments, our future is golden. Yet year-by-year, we have less future, and the current always is against us. If we’re not golden this year, when?
The last line is like a punch because Fitzgerald gives us emphasis by giving sound to the sentence. “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back….” See the four words that begin with “B”? That’s alliteration, which is a way to emphasize something. They give the sentence extra oomph, shoving us into the last four words, “ceaselessly to the past.” We all keep getting stuck in the past. The line, too, gives the whole novel an extra bittersweet moment. We are there in the past of the story and the present of our lives. Life is both bleak and beautiful.
How can you start thinking in terms of sound? Consider these other sound devices:
The close juxtaposition of vowel sounds creates assonance. “Asleep under a tree” is an example, as it, “Time and side.”
This is a type of near rhyme, a pleasing sound, where there is a close juxtaposition of consonant sounds, as in S-sounds of “boats…into the past.” The L-sounds of “cool” and “soul” have consonance.
Lines that are musically pleasant to the ear bring euphony. It’s often combining alliteration, assonance, and other agreeable sounds for a greater whole. There is a harmony and a beauty to the language, which is what many poets are often after. Emily Dickenson’s poem, “A Bird came down the walk” has this effect, as seen in the last stanza:
Than Oars divide the Ocean,
Too silver for a seam--
Or Butterflies, off Banks of Noon
Leap, plashless as they swim.
A jarring, jangling juxtaposition of words can be used to bring attention, too. Cacophony is discordant language that can be difficult to pronounce, as in the excerpt from John Updike’s poem, “Player Piano”:
My stick fingers click with a snicker
And, chuckling, they knuckle the keys;
Light-footed, my steel feelers flicker
And pluck from these keys melodies.
The sound of this alone (“On-ah-matah-PEE-ah”) makes it important, no? Onomatopoeia refers to words whose sound is suggestive of its meaning, such as: Sizzle. Boom! Buzz. Cuckoo. Oomph.
In poetry, rhyme is used to echo sounds; one word sounds like another. Rhymed words call attention to each other, so carry more weight. While rhymed poetry has not been particularly popular in poetry in the last fifty years, songwriters use it often. In fact, it makes it easier for listeners to remember the words, and it also helps carry rhythm. Judicious use of rhyme in prose can bring a subtle emphasis to particular words. “He never wanted to fly because he didn’t want to die.”
Essential in poetry and often in prose, rhythm refers to the regular or progressive patterns of accents in lines or sentences. Rhythm helps with the flow of your words. The measure of rhythm is meter.
Poetry is rhythmical, imaginative language expressing the invention, taste, thought, passion, and insight of the human soul. —Edmund Clarence Stedman
IMAGERY AND OTHER DEVICES
A good metaphor is something even the police should keep an eye on. — G. C. Lichtenberg (1742—99), German physicist, philosopher.
The Image is more than an idea. It is a vortex or cluster of fused ideas and is endowed with energy. --Ezra Pound (1885—1972), U.S. poet, critic.
Even if you are writing the text for a home page, I encourage you to create with flair and vibrancy. Description is an art in itself. Often, words have to be the reader’s eyes. One of my favorite descriptions by a novelist is in the opening page of The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler:
The main hallway of the Sternwood place was two stories high. Over the entrance doors, which would have let in a troop of Indian elephants, there was a broad stained-glass panel showing a knight in dark armor rescuing a lady who was tied to a tree and didn’t have any clothes on but some very long and convenient hair. The knight had pushed the visor of his helmet back to be sociable, and he was fiddling with the knots on the ropes that tied the lady to the tree and not getting anywhere. I stood there and thought that if I lived in the house, I would sooner or later have to climb up there and help him. He didn’t seem to be really trying.
This passage sets both place and tone. The narrator, private detective Philip Marlowe, has both a sharp eye and a dry sense of humor. In addition, as straightforward as this paragraph seems to be, by the end of the novel, the adept reader realizes that the description here was also allegorical, meaning it illustrated the very nature of Philip Marlowe, who acts as a knight himself by rescuing two needy (and sometimes naked) daughters of a paralyzed California millionaire. Allegory is just but one device you can use to enhance imagery in your work. Comparing something to something else, using simile or metaphor, are other ways. Let me show you several devices, one by one.
An allegory, as above, is a representation of an abstract or spiritual meaning. Sometimes allegories are just a single word, such as a character being named Hope or Charity. In other cases, it is a symbolic narrative. The Chandler example, above, is a mini-narrative that later takes on larger meaning.
An analogy is a comparison, usually something unfamiliar with something familiar. “The plumbing in my house is a maze of turns where even water gets lost.”
Metaphor is an analogy, but it usually goes a step further, comparing two unlike things without using “like” or “as.” Metaphors can be subtle and powerful and transform people, places, things, and ideas into fresh visions.
In The Big Sleep, which is filled with simile and metaphor, is the line, “Her eyes ate Carmen with the green distillation of hate.” First, eyes don’t really eat—that’s a metaphor, comparing eyes to a mouth. Second, distillation usually refers to alcohol, but here the distillation is green and refers to hate. Metaphor.
A great way to move into metaphor is to use active verbs instead of forms of “to be” (am, are, is, was, were, been). “Her fingers danced across the keyboard.” Fingers don’t really dance—but it expresses what is meant. “Her breath skated across my lips.” You get the idea.
Another way to create metaphor is to plunk two unlike things on either side of “is” (or other form of “to be”). “She is a mule for love.” “Peder was the Steven Spielberg of scam artists.” “The kite was a symphony.” “My feet were mustangs.” When you create a great metaphor, you create a picture that says far more than a plain description. It’s unique.
Simile is a direct comparison of two unlike things using primarily “like” or “as.” “Her eyes are like comets” is a simile. However, “Her coffee is like my mother’s coffee” is not a simile, because the two things are the same. “Her coffee is like my mother’s shoe polish,” however, would be a simile.
“Hair like steel wool grew far back on his head and gave him a domed brown forehead that might at careless glance seemed a dwelling place for brains,” is from The Big Sleep, as is, “I was as empty of life as a scarecrow’s pockets.” Chandler’s use of simile and metaphor gave his words an extra level of meaning—they added to the narrator’s sense of life. You can harness that power, too.
I include this because it’s a rare but beautiful type of comparison. A zeugma (pronounced “zoog-ma”) is a word that is used twice, bringing up two different connotations. My favorite is from Paul Simon’s song, “Duncan” where he sings, “Holes in my confidence, holes in the knees of my jeans.” The first “holes” is metaphorical, the second, literal. A zeugma can also be a single word used to modify in two different ways. “On his fishing trip, he caught three salmon and a cold.”
Irony uses contradictory statements or situations to reveal a reality different from what appears to be true. For instance, it is ironic for a minister to have a dysfunctional family or for a fire station to burn down. A verbal irony is when someone says one thing but means another. “‘Hey, Slim,’ she said to the fat man.”
Euphemism is the substitution of something that might be offensive or hurtful with something more innocuous. “She is at rest” is a euphemism for “She died.” Euphemisms are not necessarily “better,” and in fact can deflate language, but if a character uses euphemisms all the time, for instance, that says something about that character.
Repetition is the purposeful re-use of a word, phrase, image or sound, and is fundamental to poetry. In high school, you may have had your English teacher circle repeated words and say that is was bad or ineffective. Unintentional repetition can be, but do not think any repetition is a sin. It can be salvation. As Ursula K. Le Guin says in her fabulous book, Steering the Craft, “To make a rule, ‘Never use the same word twice in one paragraph,’ or to state flatly that repetition is to be avoided is to throw away one of the most valuable tools of narrative prose. Repetition of words, of phrases, of images; near repetition of events; echoes, reflections, variations: from the grandmother telling a folktale to the most sophisticated novelist, all narrators use these devices, and the skillful use of them is a very great part of the power of prose.”
Symbol is an image that represents or stands for something else. Flags, for instance, represent countries. The Statue of Liberty represents freedom. (These are clichés, too.) In your own work, you may create symbols that are true to your piece alone. In my published short story “Green River,” I happen to use the river, a candy bar, and dinosaur bones all for symbolic purposes. In the short story “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” author Flannery O’Connor uses many symbols including an automobile that, not coincidentally, is hearse-like.
Getting Beyond The Obvious
All the devices I’ve presented in this are meant to show you that you have tools at your disposal in writing. They are meant to bring subtlety to your work. One way to get to understand the devices is to purposely overuse them. One assignment I give my students is to write at least two double-spaced pages with a minimum of eight similes or metaphors. So many comparisons in a short time are often hilarious, but also there are some stunning images. The writer may not have reached such an image without writing three stinkers first.
For sound, Ursula Le Guin has her students write a paragraph to a page of narrative that’s meant to be read aloud. She has them use any sound device—alliteration, repetition, onomatopoeia, made-up words, and more—but not rhyme or meter. The idea is to have fun, cut loose, and toy with sounds and rhythms.
Remember, when you write your first draft, give yourself permission to overuse some of these devices. When you polish, take out the ones that don’t work and keep the brilliant ones.
For more terms, click here for the Glossary of Poetic Terms at a site by Bob’s Byway.
Poetry is one of the destinies of speech. . . . One would say that the poetic image, in its newness, opens a future to language. —Gaston Bachelard (1884—1962), French scientist, philosopher.
Before I wrote novels and plays, I was a journalist and reviewer (plays and books). I blogged on Red Room for five years before moving here.